Let’s be real here. Everyone has heard of The Phantom of the Opera. And by everyone, I mean everyone. Films and TV shows make references to it. The mask is an iconic symbol that is recognizable to countless people around the world. For a while, the musical was the highest-grossing piece of entertainment of all time, going so far as to surpass popular film franchises like Star Wars. Even the folks who never saw a musical in their lives have at least heard the title at some point. As the longest-running show on Broadway and one of the longest-running musicals in the West End, Phantom has surpassed normal “Broadway musical” status and propelled directly into international phenomenon territory, and with countless productions popping up all over the world, it looks like the Phantom’s influence will envelope us all for a long time.
I think the closest thing we’ve gotten to a cultural juggernaut like Phantom in recent years is Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster has been notable for the box office success making it impossible to buy tickets, and the cast recording went on to top multiple charts after its release in 2015. Like with Phantom, Hamilton references began to appear in all sorts of pop culture, and social media buzzed excitedly over the music and performances. Since then, two national tours have set out, as well as a West End production; both are doing very well thanks to the overwhelmingly ecstatic word-of-mouth across the board of people who experienced this musical in one way or another.
These two shows aren’t the only examples of a musical that seems to appeal so universally in the theatre scene. Les Misérables, The Lion King, and Wicked are also among a prized few that stood the test of time and found homes in audiences who wouldn’t normally be interested in theatre, often to great financial success and a popularity that would turn even Galinda green. It’s been proven time and time again that, while some shows may enjoy mild success in their own cities and then shutter away into obscurity, others might manage to poke a tiny hole in that barrier between “theatre” and “pop culture” and draw outside audiences in.
And so, I have to wonder: What recipe does a musical need to appeal to so broad and universal an audience?
To start, I’ll have to go back in time a bit. In the days of musicals like My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, and Carousel, “Broadway” was a lot more embedded in the pop culture of the time. This isn’t surprising for several reasons. First, tickets were a lot cheaper back in the day, and I say that even while taking inflation into account. Second, these were the days of “musical Hollywood”; many films were styled similarly to Broadway musicals and aimed toward the same audiences, and since musical films were a lot more commonplace and accepted as regular filmmaking, audiences often flocked to Broadway in order to get a “live” experience as a change to the splashy productions they saw on the big screen back home. Third, musical scores bore much more resemblance to the normal music people heard on the radio than they do now. With a more affordable theatre experience, a striking resemblance to the popular Hollywood trends, and music that sang to the ear of your Average Joe, it was impossible for Broadway to not be beloved by many.
But, as time went on, things changed, and popular culture and musical theatre began to drift apart. Hollywood was producing less and less musicals and adding increasingly more intimately realistic style to filmmaking that doesn’t match well with the often big and dramaticized style that’s found on the stage. Ticket prices began to skyrocket, to the point where people were opting to avoid the theatre out of necessity to maintaining their bank accounts. And, while musical theatre scores started to evolve in their own bubble, the trends of mainstream music became their own thing, until eventually, the countless genres and artists creating non-theatre works were the new “normal.” Unaffordable tickets, an “out of style” method of storytelling, and music that didn’t regularly capture the hearts of the masses all ensured that musical theatre would need to start appealing to a very specific set of the population in order to remain afloat in the new age.
To this day, I wouldn’t say musical theatre as a whole is becoming “mainstream” popular again, but I do think it’s interesting how each musical always has the chance to become the next Wicked and be well-known among even the most clueless about musical theatre. How is it that some shows manage to briefly bridge the gap?
Well, I don’t see any set recipe for mainstream success, but I do think that these massive blockbusters rake in the acclaim due to two particular elements: universality and luck.
Musical theatre as a genre may have drifted away from the norms of entertainment, but some musicals, if done in the exact correct way, will include a certain flavor (whether intentional or not) that directly connects with the heartstrings of the general public. For example, I believe a big part of the reason Phantom reached the level of success it did is because it, at its very root, is a classic love story. But not just any love story; the tale of redemption through love that’s told in such a simple way leaves audiences satisfied and truly understanding what’s going on. Phantom is a spectacle unique to the theatregoing experience, but it’s the combination of the “familiar” of romance with the outstanding costumes and setpieces that makes audiences feel like an expensive ticket is worth the cost.
Hamilton’s flavor is the fascination of mixing the styles of popular hip-hop artists with the story of one of our Founding Fathers. The Lion King enjoys a healthy flavor of retelling a Disney classic through incredible visuals and costumes. Wicked promises an intriguing twist on a classic tale we all know and love by asking the question, “What if the villain was really the hero all along?”
In all of these instances, the musical in question incorporated something that can be used to break down that barrier. Whether it be reference to a popular trope in storytelling, or incorporation of music styles similar to the mainstream, or finding creative ways to appeal to the nostalgia of a film well-known and beloved by many, these shows connect the dots in order to pack in as many seats as possible.
However, while some musicals find that common thread and become phenomenons, it’s also realistic to acknowledge that luck plays a part in this, too. After all, not all Disney shows manages to become hits. Not all melodramatic romances find an audience. And yes, there have been other rap musicals in the past; most of them didn’t make it very far. The creative team behind any musical has to consider whether or not their show will strike while the iron is hot, and they must wish deeply for it to hit the scene in the exact right place at the exact right time. It takes a lot of hard work to bring a musical to Broadway, but there comes a certain point where a show’s longterm success is out of the producers’ hands and directly in the hands of the public.
Will it succeed?
The truth is that, while there’s no set recipe to ensure a blockbuster hit, there is always a certain element that can push a show in the direction of propelling into icon status. Think of your favorite “famous” show and wonder: What made this blockbuster become a reality?